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New law drives lobbyists out of the shadows at state water management districts

By Dan Christensen,BrowardBulldog.org 

The Everglades Photo: South Florida Water Management District

The Everglades
Photo: South Florida Water Management District

Florida’s five water management districts, special-purpose governments that collectively will spend $1.1 billion next year, have publicly registered 250 special-interest lobbyists since new registration requirements took effect July 1.

Until now, lobbyists seeking to influence spending and policy decisions at the water management districts operated in the shadows. The public had no way to obtain official information about them or their clients, or even know how many lobbyists were at work behind the scenes.

The new law requires lobbyists to register annually and disclose whom they’re working for. It is the first time state lobbyist regulations have been applied to any of the state’s nearly 1,000 independent special districts.

House ethics and elections chair Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Fort Myers, has said that if the water district registration process goes well, the law may be expanded further to include other independent taxing districts such as the North Broward Hospital District, which levied nearly $150 million in property taxes in 2012.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, reported in January that nearly all of the state’s independent special districts did not require lobbyists to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

A week later, Senate President Don Gaetz and Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chair Jack Latvala announced their support for reform legislation that ultimately focused on the water management districts.

“Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue,” said Gaetz.

Today, water management districts are required to post lobbyist registration information on their websites.

The West Palm Beach-based South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water resources in the Everglades, is the state’s largest with a projected budget next year of $724 million. It collects taxes in 16 counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade, and is a frequent focus of lobbyists who engage staff and an unelected governing board dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.

The SFWMD reported registering 104 lobbyists representing a variety of local governments, environmental and public interest groups like Audubon Florida, and large for-profit corporations.

Corporate interests include U.S. Sugar and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, Florida Citrus, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and ALICO, the Fort Myers-based agribusiness and land management company.

Lobbyist registration at Florida’s other four water management districts: St. Johns River, 55; Southwest Florida, 41; Suwannee River, 36; and Northwest Florida, 14.

SB 846, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in June, requires lobbyists to pay a $40 fee per client. Registration includes a statement from each principal authorizing the lobbyists’ work and identifying the client’s main business and a statement disclosing the existence of any direct or indirect business relationship between the lobbyist and any officer or water district employee.

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  • Great work, Broward Bulldog! However, there is much more still to do. There are special districts all over the State, raising the involuntary exactions applicable to property owners, and little to no transparency. In effect, although called “fees” or “special assessments” they are liens against title and therefore put title into jeopardy. SO, why aren’t all property owners entitled to vote before such involuntary exactions are adopted?

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